You’ve probably heard the question – or perhaps you’ve asked it yourself – why Christians get hung up over certain passages in the Book of Leviticus, but ignore others. The Levitical prohibitions against eating shellfish or wearing polyester/cotton blends are usually the ones mentioned. The official answer involves drawing a distinction between Ceremonial Law and the Moral Law, and seems a bit hair-splitting. And maybe it is.
But the question has been around for a while. Some Jewish scholars have held that certain parts of the Law of Moses will be superseded in the Post-Messianic Era; although they disagree which parts those might be. There are instances where the Learned Rabbis, unable to come to a consensus on the interpretation of some point of the Law, have deferred a definitive ruling until the Messiah comes.
The early Christians, believing that the Messiah already had come, didn’t have that out; and so they needed to determine how much of the Law of Moses Christians need to follow. This formed the core of the Church’s first major controversy. For the sake of a snappy title, I’m going to call it the Foreskin Wars.
As the Early Church spread out from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth, as the fellow said, more and more Gentiles became attracted to the Message of Christ. This posed a problem for the Church leaders. How should they deal with these new Gentile converts?
For one faction in the Church, the answer was obvious: to join the community, one would first have to become a Jew. For that reason, the Church has come to call this group the “Judaizers”. I’m not sure if I like that name; it sounds like a Hebrew Arnold Schwartzenegger. Elsewhere, Paul refers to them as “the circumcision party” because in order to become a Jew, one must first be circumcised.
Circumcision, the cutting off of the male foreskin, was established as part of God’s covenant with Abraham way back in Genesis chapter 19. It was required not only of Abraham and his male children, but also of all the males in his household, even his slaves and servants. It was a physical sign of belonging to the Tribe of Abraham.
The Gentile response to this, of course, was “You want me to cut off my WHAT???”
Some members of the circumcision party came to Antioch, the city in Syria which Paul used as his home base. Paul and his partner Barnabas disputed the claim that converts needed to be circumcised in order to receive salvation. The local church decided to send a delegation including Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to get a ruling from the apostles and the elders of the Church as to who was right.
Here the text makes a remarkable statement, one that I don’t remember noticing in previous readings of the passage. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)
If you’re like me, you’re probably used to thinking of the Pharisees as the Bad Guys in the Gospels; and yes, the Gospels describe several clashes between Jesus and Pharisees over interpretation of the Laws of Moses. But he had more in common with the Pharisees than he did with the Sadducees, the faction among the Jewish leaders most prominent in the Temple organization.
A lot of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings are similar to those reflected by the Rabbis of the Pharisaic school. His rhetorical question “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11) is an example found in rabbinical discussions on the Sabbath; and perhaps Jesus’ most famous teaching, “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 7:12) is a restating of the Rabbi Hillel’s famous summary of the Law a generation earlier: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn"
It is not completely surprising that there were some adherents of the Pharisaic traditions among Jesus’ followers. But it is even less surprising that of his followers, these would be the most concerned with maintaining the Law of Moses.
Which brings us back to the Council.
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:6-7)
Peter was alluding here to an incident recorded in Acts chapter 10, where he received a vision from the Lord with which prompted him to accept an invitation by Cornelius, a Roman official who was curious to hear Peter’s message. This led Peter to an important understanding: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)
At the Council, Peter went on to say,
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:8-10)
Peter’s mention of the Holy Spirit was a potent argument. The church in which I grew up tends to downplay the Holy Spirit except when unavoidable like on Trinity Sunday or the Feast of Pentecost because we Lutherans tend to be suspicious of extreme outbursts of enthusiasm, but the Book of Acts mentions frequent occasions where believers and new converts had ecstatic experiences which they attributed to the presence of God. That these Gentile converts also experienced this same thing seemed to Peter and the other Apostles irrefutable evidence that God approved of them.
James the Brother of Jesus, who later tradition named James the Just to differentiate him from other Jameses and who had become an important leader among the elders of the Church by this time, stepped in with a compromise. I get the feeling that he sympathized with the circumcision party; his epistle certainly emphasizes that Christians have an obligation to do Good Works just as Moses had commanded. But James could not deny the evidence of Peter and Paul either.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” he said. (Acts 15:19) He recommended that the new converts not be required to be circumcised, but to have them abstain from a few practices common among the Gentiles which are prohibited by Mosaic Law:
(1) food polluted by idols
(2) sexual immorality
(3) the meat of strangled animals
(4) eating blood
Of these prohibitions, the first is largely obsolete; idolatry takes on more subtle forms these days and doesn’t usually involve sacrificing food. The last two are based on the Levitical view cited by Doctor Van Helsing that “The Life is In the Blood” and that it is therefore uncool to consume it. Animals killed for food were to be drained of blood as much a practical before being cooked. These prohibitions have been largely ignored in cultures that enjoy blood sausage.
The second one, so broad and vaguely-worded, is the one that the Church has obsessed over for the past two millennia.
I suspect that Paul found even these bare-bones prohibitions more restrictive than he liked. In his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:1-13) we find him finessing the rule about food sacrificed to idols, and he devotes much of his Epistle to the Galatians to insisting that Salvation is not predicated on following certain rules. One of the sad ironies of Paul is that although he argued forcibly against legalism in Galatians and many of his other letters, his writings have also been used to justify most of the legalistic practices that have burdened the Church ever since.
James’ compromise was a big turning point in the development of the Church. It averted the Church’s first major schism, and made the message of Jesus more accessible to the wider Gentile audience, but at a price.
Up to this point, the followers of Jesus could consider themselves a Jewish sect. Heck, they were Jewish. But with the Council of Jerusalem, that changed. You can argue that this was the true source of the enmity between Judaism and Christendom: not the blame for the Crucifixion, nor the blasphemous claim of Christ’s Divinity, but rather this decision by James and the other Apostles that the Jewish Identity as defined by the Laws of Moses no longer mattered.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus … There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26, 28)
That was Paul’s ideal of Christian equality; but in practical terms, the Church could either be a Jewish one, or a Gentile one; and when it made circumcision and the Law of Moses optional, the Church ceased to be Jewish.
Oh, the Leaders of the Church tried to have it both ways. Even Paul urged his student Timothy, a young man with a Jewish mother but a Greek father, to become circumcised in order to demonstrate that he was not advocating Jews to reject the Law. He did not make that request of his student Titus, a Greek.
When Paul visited Jerusalem for his last time, James and the elders of the Church warned him that rumors had spread that Paul was teaching Jews to turn away from Moses and to stop circumcising their children. They suggested he accompany some men who going to perform a purification ritual at the Temple, to show everyone that he was fine with following the Mosaic traditions.
A good plan, but it didn’t work. Some troublemakers stirred up the crowd at the Temple, claiming that Paul had brought a Gentile into the sacred Temple grounds. The text calls them “some Jews from the province of Asia”. These might have been the Jewish Christians of the circumcision party whose teachings prompted Paul to write his letter to the Galatians, or they might have been some of the members of the local Jewish community who opposed Paul when he traveled through Asia Minor. The text doesn’t specify.
Either way, they started a riot which brought in the Roman authorities to quell the disturbance. Paul was arrested, in part for his own protection, and remained a prisoner for two years while the Roman judicial system tried to figure out what to do with him.
In the end, Paul requested to have his case heard by Caesar; which was his right as a Roman citizen, but which further emphasized the rift. Henceforth, the fate of Christendom would be linked to Rome, not to Jerusalem; and the Church would be a Gentile religion, not a Jewish one.